When it comes to the knowledge and tools required to launch a bio-terrorism attack, the “genie is out of the bottle,” experts have warned.
The know-how, the equipment and the laboratories needed to genetically manipulate DNA is “out there,” and the building blocks that could be used to make these potentially devastating diseases occur in nature. There is no need to enrich uranium or stockpile tightly regulated chemicals. Anthrax, for example, could be found in a cow pasture.
Now, a growing movement of hobbyists who are carrying out biology experiments in garages, basements and community labs has drawn some interest from the FBI. There have not been any cases of these amateur scientists doing anything illegal, but the potential is there, said one agent.
“We’re looking at advances in technologies,” said Edward H. You, supervisory special agent at the FBI’s weapons of mass destruction directorate. “That barrier to do various acts — and even just cause mischief — is getting lower and lower and lower, so that risk is growing.”
The so-called “do-it-yourself” biology movement has taken off during the past two years, said Jason Bobe, director of community at the Harvard Medical School’s personal genome project. Just as missile technology and the space program sparked a movement of amateurs who wanted to try their hand at model rocketry in the 1960s, rapid advances in DNA sequencing and lower costs for the equipment needed to carry out experiments are giving rise to the DIY-Bio community, he added.
“We’re seeing that these technologies are becoming more powerful and less costly at a rate that’s commensurable with Moore’s law, but even faster,” Bobe said at a Woodrow Wilson Center panel discussion on synthetic biology and security.
Moore’s law stated that computer chips are doubling their processing power every two years. Genome sequencing technology is doubling in effectiveness every six months, Globe said. There is one desktop DNA sequencing instrument that can match 35 million base pairs in about eight hours. It costs about $50,000.
“These are not yet consumer toys, but they will be soon. I fully expect devices like these to be in people’s garages,” Bobe said. “The ability for individuals to access these technologies is really a novel and exciting development.”
The DIY biologists are a mix of educators, artists, bio-entrepreneurs looking to start a business and, in some cases, trained biologists who are moonlighting, and pursuing experiments that they don’t have the time or funding to do at their day jobs.
“They are strong contributors to online communities,” Bobe said of the trained scientists.
Tips exchanged on message boards at diybio.com include how to create a microscope from a webcam or a centrifuge from an electric screwdriver. There are amateurs with grand ideas of curing diseases, creating bio-sensors or discovering new species in their backyards, Bobe said.
“We’re starting to see people do more complicated and complex stuff,” he added.
Further, just as groups of potters share kilns to save money, there is now at least one community lab in the San Francisco Bay area. In these cases, DIY-biologists are pooling their resources to share equipment and space. Bobe foresees this possibly turning into a business.
The TechShop franchise, which provides space, training and tools for inventors, machinists, sculptors, woodworkers and robot makers provides one example. Like a gym membership, customers pay a monthly fee to carry out their mechanical engineering projects.
“That’s coming in the next 10 years for biology, too,” Bobe predicted. “Individuals are going to have access to community labs.”
Biology labs in neighborhoods may spark some concerns, Bobe admitted. Members of a similar lab in New York City invited law enforcement, health authorities and the fire department over to show them what they were doing.
You said the FBI is involved in outreach efforts to the DIY-Bio community. The agency has a weapons of mass destruction coordinator in each of its 56 field offices. These representatives act as a liaison between the federal government, state and local authorities.
“How do we prevent individuals from acquiring pathogenic materials who have no legitimate purpose for it?” You asked. “There are entities out there who really want to commit harm against us … and there is an expressed interest in bio-weapons.”
The bio-terrorism threat has authorities worried. The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction released in December 2008 and led by former Sens. Bob Graham, D-Fla., and Jim Talent, R-Mo., said “terrorists are more likely to obtain and use a biological weapon than a nuclear weapon.”
The proliferation of expertise and laboratories was one of the stated reasons for the commission’s concerns. Among its recommendations was to “promote a culture of security-awareness in the life sciences community.”
In January, the commission issued a report card that gave the nation three “F’s” for failure to effectively prepare for a biological attack, failure to implement retention and recruiting programs for the next generation of national security experts, and failure on the part of Congress to reform oversight to better address intelligence, homeland security and other missions.
In an April House Homeland Security Committee hearing, Graham and Talent said in a joint statement that “the equipment required to produce a large quantity [of biological material] from a small seed stock, and then ‘weaponize’ the material — that is, to make it into a form that could be effectively dispersed — is of a dual-use nature and readily available on the Internet. The most effective delivery methods are well known in the pharmaceutical, agricultural and insect-control industries.”
Both the House and Senate introduced legislation in April that addressed some of the commission’s concerns. The bills did not focus on amateur labs, although they do address security at private and government facilities.
You said the best way to make sure that a community biology lab is not used for nefarious purposes is to create a public awareness campaign. Self-policing, or a “Neighborhood Watch” type system, could be the most effective means to stop illegal activities. He has attended at least one DIY-Biology conference to help spread the word that the FBI is “there to help.” If someone stumbles upon a community lab and reports it to authorities, then the FBI could ease local law enforcement’s concerns.
Bobe said DIY-biology enthusiasts aren’t doing genetic engineering at laboratory levels yet, “but they are tremendously excited about it … There is going to be a community of people who are going to want to get involved in that.”
The question is: how can the community promote good “bio-citizenship?” he asked.
You warned that one bad incident could bring knee-jerk legislation or regulations down on the DIY community. And that could stifle research and innovation.
“There is a threat out there. How do we engage the research community ... to get them to address the threat? It is our job to educate the research community to give them the situational awareness,” You added.
One case study showed how the WMD liaison officers can help, he said. A U.S. business received an order for some pathogenic material from a foreign country. Not sure what to do about it, company officials contacted the local WMD coordinator. The agent called the Department of Commerce to consult them on the matter. Its representatives said there were export regulations that needed to be addressed.
“We have this reputation of breaking down doors, putting on handcuffs and asking questions later. But in this instance we really did act as mediators,” You said.
Bobe said the model rocketry case provides another example. When a large–scale model is launched, it requires Federal Aviation Administration approval. Licenses are required for some propellants. And then there is scuba diving, which requires licenses and further education to do certain skills underwater. There could be such licenses in the future for amateur biologists to carry out risky tasks.
Gigi Kwik Gronvall, assistant professor of medicine and senior associate at the Center of Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, in an interview said, “I would take a wait-and-see approach to DIY-bio. There are many more positive aspects to it than negative.”
The general public becoming excited about taking up this kind of hobby is one of the positives. She hopes that for some, it may turn into a career.
At the moment, the technology and know-how available to part-timers hasn’t reached the point where someone with bad intentions could infiltrate a DIY-bio group, create some new virus and unleash it upon the world.
DIY-bio is something to “keep an eye on” when it comes to security. But overall, she is “encouraged that people are interested in science.”
She pointed to the New York high school students who garnered some media attention last year when they bought what was supposed to be high-priced fish and Russian caviar from restaurants. Through DNA testing, they found that low-priced species were being passed off as high-grade sushi. The Russian caviar came from Missouri River paddlefish.
As far as federal regulations, there would be little a single government could do, she added. It’s an international movement. The DIYbio.org website showed chapters in numerous European and Asian countries.